Friday, April 10, 2009

Revisit: California Split

A Columbia Pictures release 1974

Directed by Robert Altman

Written by Joseph Walsh

A down on his luck gambler partners with free spirit on a winning streak, but finds himself deep in debt. As a final act of desperation, he pawns most of his possessions and heads to Reno for the poker game of a lifetime.

Elliot Gould and George Segal shine in this affable comedy-drama about gambling addiction. The two make a great on screen pair, with Gould playing the fast-talking, easy, sleazy know-it-all against Segal's excitable but straight laced persona. Add to the mix Altman's meandering, multi-layered audio, long takes and tracking shots -- a perfect match for the film's loud, chaotic casino settings -- and you get a pretty unique buddy picture.

The story is pretty simple: an amateur gambler meets another and find they make perfectly profitable partners. Soon enough the pairing goes sour and the two must part ways. While Gould pretty much sticks to what he does best (re: wisecracks), Segal gets to stretch his chops a bit once he gets in too deep. The film doesn't really aim to make any poignant commentary -- one scene between a mournful Segal and a loud, foul-mouthed female alcoholic seems to make a statement on the blind nature of addiction -- but it does do some interesting things to the buddy picture, namely in the fall-out ending.

While not one of Altman's landmark pictures, California Split exhibits much of his trademark style and motifs at a more palatable pace for broader audiences. If you're new to Altman, this isn't a bad place to start. I'd recommend it for the Gould & Segal pairing as well.

Revisit: The Hunger

An MGM film 1983

Directed by Tony Scott

Written by James Costigan, Ivan Davis & Michael Thomas

Based on the novel by Whitley Strieber

An ancient vampire seduces a famous gerontologist after her similarly ancient husband begins to fade away.

Tony Scott's studio debut has become somewhat of a cult classic since its release in 1983. The Hunger is a vampire flick cut from the Anne Rice tradition -- elegant, ageless, and refined. Much of the film focuses on the seductive powers of the female, played by the always beautiful Catherine Deneuve. Likewise, the main theme is the quest for immortality, and the consequences that come with it.

However, once you strip away the film's glamorous atmosphere, it falls rather flat. Tony Scott's films always seem to be in montage mode; he's a fan of cutting back and forth between planes of action while synchronizing voice-over to wring out double meaning, a trick I always found to be a bit obnoxious. It can be done well but here (and in another one of Scott's films, Spy Game) the cuts move so fast there's barely any time to process the visuals. It's rarely a good sign when a film starts out with a flurry of quick cuts and crazy images, and this one turned me off almost right away.

The performances aren't too great either. Say what you will about Miss Deneuve's looks, but her acting here is stoic, aloof, and disengaging. Likewise for Susan Sarandon, who looks great but is unconvincing as a doctor who specializes in aging research. Casting David Bowie, however, as Deneuve's rapidly aging husband was a very inspired choice. Bowie is by no means an extraordinary actor, but he plays the role straight and does a serviceable job. Marrying the fading vampire character with Bowie's androgynous persona, openly bisexual orientation, and frequently reinvented image adds a lot of intertextual depth that would not have been present otherwise.

If you like gothic vampire lore, you've probably already seen this flick. Otherwise I wouldn't recommend it.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Revisit: Altered States

A Warner Brothers film 1980

Directed by Ken Russell

Written by Paddy Chayefsky

A Harvard scientist conducts experiments on himself with a hallucinatory drug and an isolation chamber that may be causing him to regress genetically.

William Hurt makes his film debut in this 1980 sci-fi/horror thriller that poises itself as an intellectual dissertation on consciousness and slowly descends into absurdity by its last act. Directed by British filmmaker Ken Russell, the film meshes video art style with practical makeup and special effects. The film is sort of a cross between Cronenberg's The Fly and something like A Beautiful Mind. At the start it appears to be a drama revolving around post-radical 70's academic elites, but slowly it regresses (quite literally) as Hurt devolves into an ape like creature, and then some.

Russell is often criticized as being overly obsessed with sexuality and the church, and Altered States is no exception. Hurt's scientist is obsessed with restoring his faith and externalizing his past lives, and his hallucinations are often riddled with religious and allegorical imagery, from depictions of hell to himself on the cross. As he genetically retrogrades, the idea of man's progression from nothing becomes literal, and downright bizarre. Russell's direction treats these events so matter-of-factly that it's hard to take serious; the whole thing almost feels facetious, just short of camp. But the film's strangeness is its greatest asset; each twist and turn leads down an unexpected path until the ultimate WTF? climax is revealed.

Of course the films final message is that humanity is the ultimate truth - outside existence is merely a vast, impersonal nothingness. The film really strains to bring this idea to the forefront, and a lot of questions/absurdisms linger at the end. But if you're into so-heady-its-campy sci-fi or simply bizarre films, this one won't disappoint.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Revisit: Night of the Living Dead

A Columbia Pictures release 1990

Directed by Tom Savini

Written by George A. Romero

One would assume that this 1990 remake of George Romero's zombie apocalypse classic Night of the Living Dead exists for the same reason as Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead - advanced film-making techniques "update" a horror classic for modern audiences. There are only two problems with this theory: Tom Savini's amateur direction, coupled with his DIY special-effects aesthetic, are rudimentary even for early 90's standards.

Alas, the remake does the original little justice, and brings little new to the table. Aside from being filmed in color, everything seems a lot more routine this go-round, particularly in the shadows of Day and Dawn of the Dead. A few alterations are made to the plot of Romero's classic horror tale, including the survival of our hero Barbara, who doesn't make it out alive in the first film. Romero has gone on to amend and augment much of his zombie apocalypse universe, with Land of the Dead and other recent forrays, so the chance to revisit his pioneering classic was, and still is, presumably very tempting.

I'll give Savini some credit -- Living Dead is his directorial debut, and hand-made effects are always a delight. But it doesn't negate the fact that the film is, quite frankly, a pointless excursion.

Ultimately you're better off watching the original or one of it's earlier sequels. But if you're a splatter fan or zombie freak, you could do worse. It's better than Return of the Living Dead by a long shot.